Monday, November 17, 2014

William Gibson and the Creation of Worlds

I'm rereading Neuromancer and am moved to comment on what makes the superior writer of what's called science fiction such a boon to those who love to read.

All know William Gibson as the creator of cyberpunk, the man who named cyberspace, the matrix, who coined so many words and phrases now in common use when the Internet as we know it did not yet exist.  But reading this early work I'm struck by the imposing realness of the world he creates in this novel, and detailed in the subsequent novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  As far as I'm concerned, our Internet is far less interesting than the artificial reality he described as accessed by his computer cowboys, though it is not (yet?) here in our world.  But the world in which his cowboys lived and, sometimes, thrived, bears considerable resemblance to the one in which we live.

Consider the ubiquity of drugs use in that world, the omnipresence of new and interesting technologies, the significance of money, the grittiness of the urban landscapes in which people live and die, deals are made and information obtained and traded, the twisting of medicine and genetics to doing service in making money and pursuing and exercising power though the enhancement of physical and mental abilities.  The latter may not be here yet, but one feels that it will come; that it must come.

For some reason, when I try to visualize the world that Gibson shows us in these novels, the landscapes we see in the movie Blade Runner always comes to my mind.  That's what I see when the Sprawl or Chiba City are mentioned.  I'm surprised that a movie hasn't been made of Neuromancer.  I would prefer such a movie to the sword and sorcery epics we're being dubiously treated to instead in the form of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and their imitations.  Odd that we obsess over faux castles and kingdoms, swords and magic; there's something adolescent about it.

Which is not to criticize either Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, both of them being superb creators of worlds themselves.  Other such creators are (or were) Frank Herbert who made the Dune universe, and Philip Jose Farmer for his Riverworld.  C.J. Cherryh has made more than one interesting world, as has Dan Simmons, the maker of Hyperion and the Shrike.  Orson Scott Card, when he is not busy moralizing, has also manufactured fascinating alternate realities.

It is unsurprising that it is in science fiction and fantasy that the worlds are created and live and are experienced.  Nowhere else is the imagination given such free reign; nowhere else is it the case that new and different realities are expected.  But it is the gift of Gibson and others to make these realities simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.  Outlandish worlds somehow turn out to be uninteresting.  It's impossible to picture oneself in worlds that are entirely unreal, and one must picture oneself somewhere in order for it to hold one's interest and attention; in order for it to be worth the effort of reading or thinking, or dreaming. 

Science fiction is a curious genre, though.  Great science fiction can fascinate in a good way, but science fiction that is not great can fascinate in a bad way.  The many versions of Star Trek and Star Wars are examples of science fiction that is not great.  They are not bad, really, but they are silly.  This may come of the need evidently felt to come up with aliens who always seem to be far too much like human beings, but human beings who are comical or irritating or mystical in one sense or another and used as expositive devices.  We see the results of the fascination with science fiction that is not great in conventions and cosplay, in a devotion to the Klingon language or to The Force, in dreaming one is a Jedi Knight or superhero. 

The worlds of great science fiction are disturbingly real; those of science fiction that is not great are cartoonish.  It's regrettable that the science fiction we see translated into visual media these days is that science fiction which generates cartoon realities, primarily those of the superhero.  This suggests we desire to escape our own world, which is understandable.  But to escape into cartoons is only to escape reality, not to reimagine it and think of it.

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